Thursday, December 6, 2012

On housing and the low cost of money

I'm often writing about the perils of the Fed's monetary policy, but there are obviously some bright spots to be found out there. I'm sure by now that you've read at least one glowing article this year about the "housing recovery", and for the most part it's legitimate (even if there are some strange dynamics under the surface).

The question, of course, is whether this recovery is sustainable, and what will happen to housing prices if interest rates begin to rise from their freakishly low levels. That's a topic that Tim Iacono took on in a recent blog post, and I thought his findings were absolutely worth sharing (emphasis mine).
I’ve about had it with how giddy a large portion of the U.S. population has become about rising home prices. 
Don’t get me wrong, when first thinking about this, I was about as happy as anyone else to learn that property values are now rising sharply again since, after renting for six years, my wife and I finally bought a house about two years ago. So, we stand to benefit as much as anyone else. 
But, when you look at what’s driving home prices higher and how unnatural and unsustainable those factors are, suddenly the headlines sound more ominous than optimistic...  
Yes, low inventory is a big factor behind the home price surge as the flood of foreclosures has slowed to a trickle while strong investor demand and growing confidence amongst American consumers have surely tipped the scales in favor of higher prices. But, it is today’s freakishly low interest rates – engineered by the Federal Reserve – that have clearly played the biggest role in pushing home prices higher, simply because most people buy a house based on the monthly mortgage payment, not the purchase price
And when you see the impact record low rates have on purchase prices, you might be as concerned as I am... 
Based on a constant mortgage payment of $1,100 per month (what seemed to be a good national average based on this story and others like it), today’s 3.31 percent 30-year mortgage rate will finance a house at almost double the price that the 40-year average mortgage rate would!
While there are clearly other factors involved, it is the Federal Reserve’s asset purchase program that is largely responsible for these freakishly low rates (it is one of their stated policy objectives) and, while the central bank has promised to keep rates low for a long time and to continue buying mortgage-backed securities indefinitely, those actions are by no means guaranteed. 
This is a dynamic that I've been well aware of for a long time now, but it's still striking to see it laid out graphically like in Tim's piece. In just the last 12 months, 30-year mortgage rates have come down from 4.2% to 3.4%. Using Tim's $1,100 monthly payment, that means that a buyer who waited a year can now afford to buy a $276,000 home, as opposed to a $250,000 home last year.

That's an increase of 10.4% year-over-year because of the low cost of money, and yet home prices are only reported to have increased by 5 or 6% over the last year, even according to the rosiest estimates. Therefore, in any realistic terms, the price of housing has continued to decline this year, rather than rebound sharply as the headlines would have you believe.

If interest rates are really going to stay this low forever, then you shouldn't have much to worry about, and you can go ahead and buy real estate to your heart's content (just don't read these three posts before you do so). But as Wells Fargo is always reminding me in their constant mailings, "Interest rates rarely stay put for long!"

And if Wells Fargo is indeed correct, well then... Tim's chart tells us that housing's got another pretty significant leg down (like, 30 or 40%) to get back to those historical average rates. And that likely won't be pretty for anybody hoping to sell property at any point in the next few decades. Good luck!

[Iacono Research]

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